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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Earlier this week, the state of California defeated Proposition 37, a law that would have required the labeling of any foods that contain ingredients which have been genetically modified. Powerful corporate entities in the food industry poured money into the fight against this “Right to Know,” frightened consumers with the boogeymen of outrageous costs, and dismissed any health concerns as pseudo-science.

Yet in my opinion, genetically modifying any organism violates what I think of as the “sanctity of species” and is therefore unethical and immoral. I do not want to support such permanent alterations of species in any way and I consider it an infringement of my religious freedom to prevent me from making an educated decision about such things. But it’s not just my personal preference that matters here. It all comes down to whether or not we will foster technological, scientific, and economic models that are in direct conflict with what we are discovering about the nature of reality.

 

Once ours scientists learned how to split atoms, what they found there is that,

Matter is no longer material; the atom is formed of protons, neutrons, electrons, and twenty or more other particles. We cannot ask what these particles are ‘made of’, since they are not ‘substances.’ We may speak of energy, waves, particles, but we are actually dealing with fleeting episodes in the microcosm that are not permanent. Our picture of reality, then, is not yesterday’s matter but today’s relationships, processes, and events. Instead of an edifice of hard building blocks, ultimate reality is relational. (Levi A. Olan in “The Prophetic Faith in a Secular Age,” in Jewish Theology and Process Thought, ed. David Ray Griffin and Sandra Lubarsky, 27)

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism or “process philosophy” is grounded in this awareness that reality is made up of experiences and that everything that exists is relational and interconnected. Reasons why his thought is seen as “ecological” include that in his system of thought, every organism has some degree of experience or subjectivity, and has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. Ecological science points to this same awareness, and sees organisms and their ecosystems as being interconnected, relational, interdependent, and wholistic.

Olan describes reality as one of “self-enfolding creatures as well as the infinite whole in which we are, somehow, included as One…Whitehead implies that reality is comprised of ourselves, others, and the whole is the sense of deity, or, as he describes it, ‘the intuition of holiness,’ which is the foundation of religion.” (28) Reality, then, and every organism in it, has a ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctity’ of its own.

On the other hand, the modern technology of genetic modification is based on an outmoded world view – basically, scientific materialism – in which organisms (and, to some degree, even humans) can be reduced to merely machines with interchangeable parts – so who cares if the gene of a toxic plant is spliced into the DNA of a type of corn we will later eat or if the gene of an insect is injected into the DNA of a pig? But if we see each species as a whole, as something with intrinsic value and integrity, with patterns of wisdom that guide its functioning and life experience, then genetic modification violates this sanctity of species.

As Olan writes,

Western civilization today, it seems, is not in harmony with the basic character of the universe as the new science describes it. Materialism dominates our culture at a time when the universe is disclosed to be non-material. Fragmentation is increasingly the mode of human organization, while the universe is revealed to be an integrative unity. The major drive of western culture aims at separating the part from the whole. (32)

But the parts cannot be ethically or morally separated from a whole in which everything is interrelated and interdependent, and we shouldn’t act – or eat – as if they can be.

 

 

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Wikipedia quotes Isaac Newton as saying about “non-locality” or “action at a distance” that it is “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” On the other hand, Albert Einstein, certainly someone with quite a well-developed “Faculty of thinking” called the exhibited “non-locality” of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” Meanwhile, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which ran from 1979 until 2007, was established so as to “to pursue rigorous scientific study of the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice.” PEAR showed up on the public’s radar screen some years back in relation to its experiments in “remote viewing,” heavily discussed in Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field.

While many of us have experienced the power of prayer, the majority of people in the Western world with its post-Enlightenment worldview grounded in scientific materialism dismiss such ideas as distant healing and the efficacy of prayer as so much gobbled-gook and supernatural mumbo jumbo.

Even modern theologians and religious scholars, heavily wedded to rationalism, focus on a “historical Jesus,” and wave away any notions of healings and seemingly miraculous events. In his book, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Bruce Epperly puts his finger on the unsatisfying nature of such dismissals when he writes that,

Totally deconstructionist or one-dimensional naturalistic visions of the gospel narratives fail to address the life-transforming experiences of first-century followers of Jesus as well as the profound interdependence of mind, body, and spirit: they also neglect God’s activity within every ‘natural’ process. (75)

Though I have been a fan of such writers as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan for a long time, I’ve often noted – as Dr. Epperly does – that they seem not to take into account the insights of “process theology, quantum physics, recent medical research, and global complementary and energy medicine, all of which allow for surprising acts of God and lively releases of divine energy arising from the interplay of ‘natural’ causes.” (75)

Years ago, while a student at the Atlanta School of Massage, I learned various healing modalities – alongside Swedish and deep tissue massage – that focused on the energy fields of the body. Though I could not explain why they worked, I knew that I experienced a greater sense of peace and wholeness after such treatments. Later, while supporting a fellow church member and her family as she died of cancer, I witnessed firsthand the calming effects of therapeutic touch and prayer. As well, I’ve known for a long time that “healing” doesn’t always mean “curing.”

There were times when I’d run into a more conservative Christian who would claim that any such healing work not done directly in the name of Jesus was of the devil.  Jesus ran into the same kind of narrow thinking when he healed a demon-possessed man and was accused of doing so through the power of “Beelzebul.” Jesus set them straight with the illustration that Satan cannot throw out Satan, for a house divided in such a way cannot stand. He went on to point out a tree is known by its fruit and anyone who insults the Holy Spirit is in serious trouble. (Matthew 12:22-33)

I agree with Dr. Epperly that we “must somehow redefine our understanding of the natural world to include non-local causation (action at a distance), paranormal phenomena, and healing energy.” (74)

 

 

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Just a little over 16 years ago, a three year old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and lay lifeless on the ground until a female gorilla named Binti approached him. Did she hurt him? No. Rather, Binti picked him up and cradled and comforted him, just as if he was one of her own. She then carried the boy to the door of the enclosure so that paramedics could take him out.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist in Atlanta would not be surprised at this gorilla behavior. I heard a presentation he delivered in 2010 at the American Academy of Religion conference where he talked about what he describes as “the roots of morality” in animals. In a blog for the New York Times called “Morals without God?”, de Waal describes humans’ similarity to apes in this way,

No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

At both Zoo Atlanta and a wildlife sanctuary in northeast Georgia, I had my own “close encounters” with primates that though, while being a safe distance away or behind glass, showed me without doubt how much we have in common, and how much presence and subjectivity lies behind their eyes.

Process theology supports this view of our connection to the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet. In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bruce Epperly tells us that “process theology asserts that humankind is embedded in the process of planetary evolution…” Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts said in lectures collected as Tao of Philosophy that the earth “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples” and that humans are more like the apples on the tree than we are like the birds sitting on its branches. In other words, humans, like all animals, are just part of the ecosystem.

Some religious people balk at the concept of human embeddedness within creation, but I remember how it felt to lock eyes with an adult male chimpanzee, how the deep connection from one sacred being to another was unmistakable. In Atlanta, I asked de Waal if he’d ever had a similar experience, and he said that most primatologists entered the field because of just such an encounter.

We can celebrate and not fear this embeddedness because, as Epperly writes,

 The fact that humans, chimpanzees, and apes share 99 percent of their DNA and have common ancestors in no way diminishes the wonder, value, and beauty of human existence. In a lively meaning-filled universe of experience, to say that humans have evolved from less complex forms of life does not deny human worth or our unique relationship with God, but places our lives in the context of a God-inspired universe in which the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3) and everything that breathes praises God (Psalm 150:6).

Being part of the ecosystem means we can be at home here, and embrace the kin that live amongst us, whether they walk on two legs or four, or have fur, feathers, or fins.

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My transistor AM radio in 1970 was always tuned to WABC where I especially loved hearing Cousin Brucie. I’d carry it with me as I walked back and forth to Grace Wilday School in Roselle, NJ, the first community to be lit by electric lights and overhead wires in 1883. One of my favorite songs of that era was “Spirit in the Sky,”

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best.
(© 1969 Norman Greenbaum)

At the time, I thought it was quite cool for a pop song to mention Jesus and I still think it’s a really catchy song. But I no longer believe in the Spirit in the Sky.

That is, I no longer believe in a Spirit that’s just in the sky.

I believe that God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in everything, and in every being, human and non-human.

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, where I am a doctoral student, recently hosted an event featuring Brian McLaren as one of the speakers. McLaren serves on our Board and is a known figure in the emerging church. His books include A New Kind of Christianity and his most recent, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? During the presentation, he told us a very compelling story.

Seems an economist friend and McLaren were discussing our current environmental crisis and what might be done about it. The economist had written that he believes we have been operating under two narratives in the U.S., both of which are “ecologically devastating”:

  • The first is the story of the “Grand Machine” that undergirds naturalistic science. In this story, the world and all of its non-human components are just machines or machine parts that have only instrumental value, and no intrinsic value or subjectivity of their own. According to the economist, this story is “bankrupt” and “cannot catalyze human energy” for addressing our very present crisis.
  • The second is the story of the “Distant Patriarch” that undergirds Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In this story, there is “a dangerous and threatening divine being” and all of our human energy must be focused on appeasing this being. This story also has little power to mobilize us to take action even while the crisis worsens before our eyes.

What’s needed now, said the economist to McLaren, is a new narrative, the story of the “Integral Spirit.” This story says [in as close a paraphrase as I can offer],

The world is not just math and physics. There is a Spirit here that is involved in the processes of the universe, a present Spirit working within the universe that can help us deal with our problems. Everything has value and is a manifestation of this Spirit, and we’re all connected. Only this story can offer hope and has the power to heal, but this story – embraced by many – has no institutional home.

No institutional home. Is the Church listening?

This story of the “Integral Spirit” has been told by process theology for decades. As Bruce Epperly has written in Emerging Process,

In contrast to Enlightenment deism and conservative supernaturalism, both of which are grounded in the belief that God operates from “outside” the world, intruding occasionally in ways that subvert nature’s regularity, process theology affirms that God’s Spirit moves within all things, inviting us and them to be ‘more’ than they or we can imagine…Imagine a spirit-filled world! Imagine God’s spirit, breathing in and through all things, giving them life, energy, chi, ki, prana, ruach, and inviting them to evolve toward the wholeness in God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and love. (p. 88-89, 91)

Imagine how much could change if we embraced this story, if we really believed that God’s wondrous, grace-giving, enlivening Spirit was right here, right now. I think even Norman Greenbaum could tap his toes to that tune.

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I’d spent half that day in 1995 holding on to my hat as the open-air truck bounced us around Canyon de Chelly, a most beautiful National Monument in Arizona. Under expansive and gorgeous azure blue skies, we saw cliff dwellings perched precariously in the red-brown canyon walls, examined pictographs sketched centuries earlier, drove through occasional groves of green cottonwood trees, and passed homesteads of Native Americans who farmed in that rugged landscape. When the “shake and bake” truck tour ended, I decided to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon from one of the overlooks at the rim.

I drove my rented car into the lot of the first overlook I came to, noticing that there were no other cars and no other people. I walked out and sat on a rock hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the now-ant-sized truck tours below and listened to the hawks and the gentle breeze.  It had been an interesting vacation where I traveled alone, flying from Atlanta to Albuquerque, renting a car, and driving about a thousand miles to see a good bit of the American Southwest. This canyon was my last stop before getting back on the plane the next day.

As I sat on that rock, in what the Celts would have called a “thin place,” my awareness and sensory experience suddenly underwent a dramatic shift. My consciousness expanded and I could fully feel in every cell of my body this one truth: I was an infinitesimally small speck of dust in the universe. And I was connected to everything. I would say that the rest of my life since that moment has been an attempt to integrate that one truth. That moment – one that could be called “mystical” – revealed the Holy for me. It was certainly a “big” picture view.

Last week, I wrote about meeting God in a hummingbird, probably one of the smaller of the earth’s creatures. So the Holy can be revealed just as clearly in the “small” picture view as well. But isn’t it all too easy to miss God in those small moments?

As a scholar of process theology, I am most drawn to this school of thought because of the way in which it presents God as being very much in this world, not just transcending it. In “emerging process spirituality”, writes Bruce Epperly, “God is present as a source of guidance and inspiration in every moment of experience and in every encounter. According to process theology, all things and every moment reveal the holy.” (p. 132, Emerging Process) He writes,

Revelation is not other-worldly, nor does it draw us away from our concrete experience of God’s wholeness/holiness in the here and now of historic, relational, and embodied experiences. Encountering God calls us to love God in this concrete, ever-emerging world, rather than deferring issues of justice, peace, and self-realization to a disembodied afterlife.

Might God be revealed in our day-to-day encounters with friends? In our workplace? In our dogs, cats, and the wild things out back? In our battles with depression? In the crying infant a few rows up in the airplane? In our night time dreams and the meaningful coincidences or synchronicities that give us pause? Where do you meet the Holy?

 

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Yesterday, my church was a sycamore tree and God was a hummingbird. Maybe I should qualify that by saying that God was POSING as a hummingbird, but I believe that the Logos or Word of God is present in everything created so, for me, there’s not that much of a difference.  After all, the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying, “Raise the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and there I am.” But back to my September Sunday church in the sycamore tree…

I was not actually IN the sycamore tree, but the patio of my second story apartment places me right next to the extensive branches of the stately tree, and so when the light filtering through the leaves tickles my face as I rest there, it’s as if I can become a part of the tree itself. There are times in the morning when the leaves are haloed and especially gorgeous.

My time on the porch Sunday morning was primarily for the purpose of reading Dr. Bruce Epperly’s Holy Adventure (a 41-day guide to “audacious living), and so with my body resting on the two-seater there (and my dog, Cotton, occupying the other seat), I began to read. While I was immersed in the reading for Day 4, I heard the constant chattering of one of the hummingbirds that frequents my feeder, just when Dr. Epperly invited his readers to “Visualize yourself sitting in your favorite place of beauty.”(p. 45)  It was nice that I could do even better than that, as I was already present in that very real place. He continues, “Experience the unique beauty and wonder of this place. Feel its peace and tranquility.”

Hummingbirds are always a wonder for me, and to be able to catch them in a rare moment of stillness, perched on a branch, seems like an overabundance of grace. As I listened to the hummer’s vocalizations, I began speaking softly back, whispering my gratitude and love for this perfect little being. He or she grew very quiet and almost seemed to be listening to me as well. In that moment, everything paused and I experienced a brief respite of inner peace that was nothing short of a Eucharistic communion.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning has written in her poem “Aurora Leigh”, and Dr. Epperly has quoted:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [she] who sees, takes off [her] shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Here, in this place, the Spirit of God whispered on the breeze through the branches, outlined leaves in light, spoke through the chattering of a hummingbird, flowed through my mind in grace-filled words, and held my heart in the palm of Her hand for a blessed moment of stillness and beauty.

Marble cathedral  Sunday services rarely get any better than that.

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Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? …Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
~ Matthew 6:25-34 (Common English Bible)

What time zone do you live in?

I’m not actually asking about your geography, rather, I’m asking about your temporal state of mind. In other words, do you live primarily in the past, in the future, or in the present? How much do you worry about what has already passed or about what has yet to happen? Or, how often do you fling your “true” life out into a dreamed-of time when everything will be just as you imagine it “should” be?

Ah, that last one. That’s the time zone I’ve spent most of my life in.

The verse above – fresh from its appearance in today’s readings for those churches following the same lectionary system – shows that long before Eckhart Tolle, Jesus was teaching about the power of now. Buddhists and others who embrace meditation call it “mindfulness” – that intentional perspective from within the present moment.

But how do we find the exit ramp for the whirlwind interstate of non-presentness? I think the best and only way is to ground ourselves fully in our bodies and in our sensory perception; it’s only when we allow our sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and bodily sensations to hold the core of our attention that we can truly be “in the moment.”

Let me tell you about my day so far.

Today, I was the guest musician at the Redlands (CA) First United Methodist Church, and as soon as I entered the sanctuary, I was struck by the beauty of the place, and especially loved the way the blue sky and the building across the street were visible through the huge round window. When it came time for my musical contribution, I began plucking the introductory notes of my arrangement of the traditional hymn “Abide with Me,” and I imagined myself as one with the guitar and as embodying the words. As I sang and played, I felt completely in my body, grounded in the now of the music.

On the way home, I marveled as I drove up Indian Hill Boulevard in Claremont at the beauty of the jacaranda trees as they waved bounteous purple blossoms above our heads, dangling and dropping them like confetti upon the streets and sidewalks. It felt like a joyous celebration.

The same energy was palpable in the farmers market, where the riotously colored produce in abundance and bustling shoppers all out enjoying the beautiful sunshine made it feel like a festival. And then, once home, I walked the dog and relished the almost beach-like breeze that danced across my skin. The breeze, combined with the retro scent of the sunscreen took me right back to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, NJ and it seemed that if I listened closely, I might hear the surf, the carnival barkers, the music, and the merry-go-round.

Do I have worries? Sure. Like everyone, I wonder how the things I’ve invested my time, money, and passions in will turn out.

But today? Today, my friends, is beautiful.

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